How Dangerous Are Chairlifts? Unbiased Facts

by Simon Naylor | Updated On: February 15th, 2019
chair lift safety

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If you’ve never been on a chair lift before, getting on and off can look daunting or you might have seen some scary viral videos of people falling off chairlifts or chairlifts spinning crazily out of control in Georgia. I’m sure this got you thinking: How can I be sure I/my child won’t fall off. These are common concerns by new skiers and concerned parents. So, in this article, I’ll investigate the truth about ski lifts and answer once and for all -- really, how safe are chairlifts?

TLDR; Very few people have been hurt by chair-lifts and the statistics show them to be extremely safe. That’s not to say they’re risk-free and accidents can happen, but the chances of them happening are VERY slim. To put it in perspective, in the U.S. out of 300 million lift ride every year there have only been three deaths since 2014 (source). Riding in a car up to the resort is much more dangerous. 

So, let’s dive into the facts

The organization Kids On Lifts which promotes lift safety believes that riding a chair lift is one of the safest forms of transportation available.

They quote a 2012 study which reviewed lift falls over the previous 10 years. It found that 2% of falls were due to the operator or technical errors while 90% of falls were as a result of medical conditions or human error (source). According to the NSAA, just 12 people have died due lift malfunction in the U.S out of hundreds of millions of journeys.

The truth it falls from chairlifts are very rare, but when they do happen it’s primarily due to the skier’s behavior -- which means its a good idea to know the Do’s & Don’ts of ski lifts before using them.

ski chairlift

My wife enjoying the views, Sierra Nevada

Do’s ✅

Don’t ❌

How to use chairlifts?

The first time you use a chairlift can be daunting. Everything is new and your still learning to stand up on your skis. Always start by using the slowest chair lift at a resort which will be on the green slopes. This will give you much more time to think about what you’re doing and help you learn the ropes.

Get on

How to Use Beginner Lifts - Tips for Ski Holidays

Get off

For a video walkthrough and more detailed instructions on using chairlifts and other ski lifts as a first-timer skier, read my guide: How (NOT) to Use Ski Lifts.

Do chairlifts have safety bars?

Most chairlifts have safety bars that pull down to rest your hands and feet on. The bars acts a safety barrier to the drop below. Some ski lifts don’t have them, so the best thing to do is sit far back, hold on to the side and stay still.

Are chairlifts all the same speed?

No, some are faster than others depending on the resort, the age of the chairlift and the trail rating. Usually, chairlifts that go to the top of green color slopes (beginner trails) run slower as most users are first-timers.

The slower chairlifts make it easier to get on and off while skiers and snowboards are still learning the process.

What should I do with my backpack?

If it’s small it should be fine on your back, but be aware if will push your seating position forward. It can be a good idea to take your bag off just before the lift arrives and sit it on your lap. Be aware that you’ll need to hold your ski poles as well as your bag if your skier.

What should I do with my ski poles?

It’s best to unstrap them and hold them both in one hand. That way they are less likely to get caught up when the safety bar comes down. Holding them in one hand also gives you a free hand to pull the bar down, hold your bag and reach out to steady the lift as it approaches.

What if drop a ski pole, gloves etc?

First things first is don’t panic and don’t ever try to get off a chair lift in mid-air even if the drop looks small -- it’s not worth the risk and can endanger others as well as your self.

Wait till you get off at the top and if the item was dropped right as you got on, speak to the operator and he can radio down to the bottom. It’s likely someone would have picked it up and then given it to the operator or a person coming up on the lift.

Otherwise ski down to wear the dropped item is and ask someone to retrieve it if it is on an icy patch and you’re not a confident skier. Don’t go near drops or cliffs. No glove is worth a broken bone.

chairlift

What do I do if the chair lift stops?

This is normal and happens regularly as the operator stops the lift to help someone get on or off. Don’t worry, it will get going in the next few minutes. Sit back, relace and enjoy the view.

If for any reason the lift is broken or need evacuating, ski patrol and resort staff will let you know from below. But don’t try to leave the chairlift unless specifically instructed to.

How much does a ski chairlift cost

About five million euros per kilometer to build a modern five seater chairlift! Not including operating costs, electricity, lift operators and ongoing maintenance (further reading).

What’s it like riding a chair lift?

Chairlift have some of the most amazing and unique views you will get as a skier. Here is what the view is like from a chairlift at Val Thorens, France

Ski chair lift ride (Plein Sud - Val Thorens)

How safe are the other types of ski lifts?

Other lifts like drag or button lifts are a bit harder to use as a beginner, but they are very safe as you are on the ground, so any fall is likely to be very minor.

For some light-hearted humor, here are some people having trouble using ski lifts for the first time. As you can see more lift falls are harmless fun.

Funny Ski Lift Fails ⛷ [Epic Laughs]

The time I got strung up on a drag lift

The other week, I was riding a drag lift up the top of Valeta, Sierra Nevada and women in front fell over as she was getting off and didn’t roll out the way in time. So just before I could get off the lift without falling backward down the mountain my skis tripped up over her skis and I flung forward -- as I fell my jacket comically hooked onto the lift and I was strung upside down hanging from a tether.

Luckily the lift operator at the top saw me and after a few seconds of dangling as the lift swung back round to head downhill, the lift stopped and I fell into a heap on the ground -- much to the amusement of everyone watching.

Luckily the operator was on the ball and saw me before the lift headed off downhill.

Is skiing safe? 

Skiing is very safe compared with other high action sports ir evertyday activities like driving. In the US out of 51 million skiing days, an average of 41 people die per year skiing, 44 suffer serious injury (paralysis, head trauma etc)  [source]

Most ski fatalities are as a result of skiing too fast, skiing off-piste in avalanche risk areas or falling down a tree well.

If you ski sensibly and only on trails that match your level of experience, wear a helmet and be alert, the risk of injury is low.

Statistically, if you ski 20 days a year, on average you’ll sustain an injury every 16-17 years (source).

If you want to know more about the risks involved, I wrote a piece called: Is Skiing Dangerous For Beginners? The HONEST answer

Is skiing safer than snowboarding?

Statistically, snowboarders are more likely to be injured, but skiers are involved in more serious accidents.

Because skis are designed to come off on hard impacts, skiers are less likely to be injured by their equipment but do not slow down as fast.

On the other hand, snowboarders are more likely to be injured in a heavy crash as their board does not come off, but the snowboard acts as a brake slowing the snowboarder down and preventing more serious injuries.

If you’re interested, I cover this in much more details over on: Is Skiing Safer Than Snowboarding?

Can chairlifts cause vertigo?

For some skiers who suffer from vertigo or motion sickness, chairlifts can be a problem. The height and the speed can trigger anxiety and panic attacks in some people who have experienced vertigo in the past.

The best thing to do is ski with someone who understands your condition, use drag lifts where possible and not to look behind or beneath you.

I explore the triggers and practical solutions in: Can Skiing Cause Vertigo or Motion Sickness?

Final thoughts

Don’t be afraid of chairlifts, although they might look hazardous -- most people find them fun to ride and a great time to catch your breath and enjoy the views.

If your a new skier, watch others, start on slower, lower lifts and take it steady.

Simon Naylor, the founder of New To Ski, started skiing in 2005. He has continued to practice his skills and wanted to share his journey and knowledge with other new skiers. He launched New To Ski in 2018 to help first-time skiers have more fun on the slopes and get out and explore the mountains safely.